The history of presidential debates


Graphic illustration by Ron Aich and Bennie Chang

Since the 1960s, presidential debates have helped Americans decide who to vote for.

Ron Aich and Bennie Chang

After repeated interruptions, vehement arguments and personal jabs, the first 2020 presidential debate on Sept. 29 between President Donald J. Trump and former Vice President Joe R. Biden was over. As the dust settled, many criticized the harsh tone of the event and questioned what purpose the debate served. However, presidential debates, hosted by the Commission of Presidential Debates, have a long and storied past, serving as an election staple which help millions of Americans make up their minds about their vote.

Debates between political candidates first began during Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln’s pivotal campaigns for the Illinois Senate seat. Prior to the creation of the debates, each Senate candidate would campaign in each Illinois congressional district separately. Lincoln and Douglas, though, opted to speak at each district within a day of each other. Eventually, the candidates decided to make joint appearances in the seven congressional districts they had yet to visit. These seven debates were the first political debates that were heavily covered by the media, making them widely available to the American people. This media coverage set Lincoln up for his historic 1860 presidential run, helping him win the presidency.

The match-up between Lincoln and Douglas became one of the guiding pathways toward increasing American engagement and political transparency. Although debates did not become mainstream for decades, the events became the backbone of future presidential elections and have impacted voter perception of the potential candidates for the highest office in the country. Because of their popularity, the Lincoln-Douglas debate format has also become one of the most prominent competitive debate events for high school students.

“It is heavily intertwined with philosophy and often contains arguments that criticize structural issues within society,” Speech and Debate Co-President and senior Nevin Thombre said. “The Lincoln-Douglas (LD) debates of 1858 were heavily centered around the morality of slavery. Today, LD debate places that same influence on weaving using values, morals, philosophy, and logic to shape an argument.”

In the first televised debate between presidential candidates, thousands of Americans tuned in to watch Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy face off at the Columbia Broadcasting Service’s studio in Chicago. Kennedy, at the time a relatively unremarkable senator from Massachusetts, faced off against then-Vice President Nixon, who held an impressive political track record and a slight lead in the polls. 

It was clear that these candidates were evenly matched in substance. Both candidates presented similar agendas, addressing the threat of communism, the future of America’s economy and the importance of national security. While most radio listeners were prepared to call the debate a draw, it was clear to the 70 million television viewers that Kennedy won — and by a wide margin.

“Nixon was a junior politician to Eisenhower, not to say that he didn’t have a national standing,” AP U.S. History teacher Steven Roy said. “It’s just that once you compare them side by side on television, here, you have the young, dynamic, good looking, charming JFK and then you have Nixon — it is hard to compare the two when they are both on national stage talking.”

During the debate, Kennedy stared into the camera, talking directly to the American people, while Nixon shifted his glance toward the sideline reporters, adding another layer of frigid pallor to his already sickly demeanor and dull ashy-grey suit. Kennedy, meanwhile, presented himself as the paragon of health, with his bronzed complexion, warm smile and striking navy-blue suit. Kennedy used the visual platform that broadcast television provided to appeal to voters’ hearts. 

“Chances are that nine out of ten of the average American voters were not able to see or hear what a candidate has to say for most of history,” Roy said. “So literally seeing and hearing the candidates debate, I would argue, is when the average American really connected to their politicians.”

Kennedy went on to win the 1960 presidential election; whether that was due to his performance in the 1960 debates is unclear. However, it was clear that it was a major turning point in the race, as voters were awed by Kennedy’s charismatic demeanor. 

In other races, a candidate’s performance at a debate could drastically alter both poll numbers and in some cases, change the course of the race entirely. In what was expected to be a close race, Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan by a landslide after a debate where Reagan unleashed several brutal one-liners that dismantled the incumbent president’s talking points. George H.W. Bush was wildly popular until a town hall meeting at which the relatively unknown Bill Clinton was able to offer sympathy to the working class while Bush appeared lackadaisical and bored.

Studies such as “Presidential Debate Watching, Issue Knowledge, Character Evaluation, and Vote Choice,” published by Human Connection Research in 2006, have shown that presidential debates drastically increase voter awareness on issues and shape impressions on candidates. Surprisingly, the study also finds that debates actually strengthen voters’ existing opinions on candidates more than helping undecided voters make up their mind.

“I believe the role of the presidential debates have been rendered more and more obsolete, due to the greater amount of channels that current politicians can now spread their views and policies,” junior Shawn Wang said. “Nowadays, people can just search up anything they need to know, without tuning in to any certain event.”

In modern times, the traditional pattern crumbles: in 2012, Barack Obama was widely panned for appearing unfocused and disinterested during the debate; however, he went on to upset Mitt Romney in November. Even in 2016, Donald Trump was lambasted for following Hillary Clinton around a town hall debate and spewing rude comments, but he still won the election. With all 2020 debates complete, there is still uncertainty about the importance of debates in promoting democratic engagement.

“I personally have not enjoyed nor found any of the presidential debates to be useful,” Wang said. “The sole result of the [first] Trump versus Biden debate was increased polarization within our country, as Trump pandered to his voting base, which made his supporters happier, but turned off centrists.”

Time and time again, history has shown that the purpose of the debate is not only to learn about each candidates’ position but also to test a candidate’s empathy and character. Underneath the lights, with all eyes on them, each candidate is expected to extend admiration and respect not only for their fellow countrymen, but also for their fellow candidates. Although debates may be losing their impact on the American public, they are still an important aspect of presidential elections.

“Presidential debates allow for voters to connect with the candidates on a personalized level,” Thombre said. “Politics is so overwhelmingly dominated with negative ads, media sensationalization and controversy that it often disincentivizes political participation. Debates allow voters to feel like the candidates are directly speaking to them.”